Dreams | Part 1: Dreams in Homeric epic

Night bore also hateful Destiny, and black Fate, and Death; she bore Sleep [Hupnos] likewise, she bore the tribe [phūlon] of Dreams [Oneiroi]; these did the goddess, gloomy Night bear after union with none.

Theogony 211–212, adapted from Sourcebook[1]

In the Homeric epics, dreams sometimes play an important part in the narrative. In this post we look at some examples, and how people react in response.

Dreams are from Zeus

As we see in the passage from Hesiod above, dreams are entities in their own right. We also learn that they come from Zeus:

Let us ask some priest or prophet [mantis], or some interpreter-of-dreams [oneiro-polos] (for a dream [onar], too, is of Zeus) who can tell us why Phoebus Apollo is so angry

Iliad 1.63–65, adapted from Sourcebook

Zeus sending the Baneful Dream

We see Zeus in action doing just this, when, in order to accomplish his promise to Thetis, he sends a false or baneful dream to Agamemnon.

[1] Now the other gods and the armed warriors on the plain slept soundly, but sweet sleep did not take hold of Zeus, for he was thinking how to do honor to Achilles, to destroy many people at the ships of the Achaeans. [5] In the end he thought it would be best to send a baneful [oulos] dream [oneiros] to Atreus’ son King Agamemnon; so he called one to him and said winged words to him: “Baneful [oulos] Dream [oneiros], go to the ships of the flowing-haired Achaeans, [10] into the tent of Agamemnon, and say to him word to word as I now bid you. Tell him to get the Achaeans instantly under arms, for he shall take Troy. There are no longer divided counsels among the gods; [15] Hera has brought them to her own mind, and woe to the Trojans!”

Iliad 2.1-16, adapted from Sourcebook

The dream is described as oulos, “baneful, destructive,” and Thomas Seymour’s notes at Perseus explain that it is “a deceptive, illusory vision, instead of a kindly dream of warning.”[2]

The two types of dream

We hear from Penelope a further detail about the two types of dream when she asks Odysseus—who is in disguise as a beggar—to interpret a dream she tells him. She says:

[560] “Stranger, dreams [oneiroi] are very curious and unaccountable not things, and they do not by any means invariably come to a telos. There are two gates [pulai] through which these unsubstantial [= without menos] dreams [oneiroi] proceed; the one is of horn [keras], and the other ivory [elephas]. Those that come through the gate of ivory [elephairesthai] [565] are unauthorized [a-kraanta], but those from the gate of polished horn [keras] mean something to those that see them. I do not think, however, that my own dream [oneiros] came through the gate of horn [keras], though I and my son should be most thankful if it proves to have done so.”

Odyssey 19.560–569, adapted from Sourcebook

Gregory Nagy’s commentary on this passage explains:

But there is also a playful side to these images of horn and ivory, as reflected in the word play that links (1) the noun keras ‘horn’ with the verb krainein in the sense of ‘authorize as real’, O.19.567, and (2) the noun elephas ‘ivory’ with the verb elephairesthai in the sense of ‘deceive’, O.19.565. The object of the verb krainein ‘authorize as real’ here is etuma ‘real things’ (ἔτυμα), O.19.567: that is what dreams from a Gate of Horn will bring. Correspondingly, the object of what is brought by dreams from a Gate of ivory is a-kráan-ta ‘unauthorized’ (ἀκράαντα), O.19.565.

Gregory Nagy, in A Homeric Commentary in Progress[3]

How can we—and the sleeper—tell if a dream is real or deceptive, unless the narrative says so directly (as with Agamemnon’s Baleful Dream)?

Interpreting dreams

Penelope and Odysseus

Earlier in the passage quoted above, Penelope outlines her dream to Odysseus and asks him to interpret it for her:

“[535] Come, respond [hupo-krinesthai] to my dream [oneiros], and hear my telling of it and interpret it [= make a hupo‑krisis of it] for me if you can. I have twenty geese about the house that eat mash out of a trough, and of which I am exceedingly fond. I dreamed that a great eagle came swooping down from a mountain, and dug his curved beak into the neck of each of them till he had killed them all. Presently he soared off into the sky, [540] and left them lying dead about the yard; whereon I wept in my room till all my fair-haired maids gathered round me, so piteously was I grieving, although in a dream [oneiros], because the eagle had killed my geese. Then he came back again, and perching on a projecting [545] rafter spoke to me with human voice, and told me to leave off crying. ‘Be of good courage,’ he said, ‘daughter of far-famed Ikarios; this is no dream [onar], but a vision [hupar] of good [esthlos] omen that shall surely come to a telos. The geese are the suitors, and I am no longer an eagle, but your own husband, who am come back to you, [550] “ and who will bring these suitors to a disgraceful end.’ Then I woke, and when I looked out I saw my geese at the trough eating their mash as usual.”

“[555] “This dream [oneiros], my Lady,” replied resourceful Odysseus, “can admit but of one interpretation [hupo‑krisis], for had not Odysseus himself told you how it shall be fulfilled [teleîn]? The destruction of the suitors is portended, and not one single one of them will escape death and fate [kēr].”

Odyssey 19.535–569, adapted from Sourcebook

Although Odysseus is asked to interpret Penelope’s dream, this is part of an ongoing series of coded dialogues and messages. Usually it would be a seer [mantis] who would interpret dreams (as well as signs and prophecies). Here are a couple of examples:

Let us ask some priest or prophet [mantis], or some interpreter-of-dreams [oneiro-polos] (for a dream [onar], too, is of Zeus) who can tell us why Phoebus Apollo is so angry

Iliad 1.63–65, adapted from Sourcebook

He [= Diomedes] … went in pursuit of Abas and Polyidos, sons of the old man interpreter-of-dreams [oneiro-polos], Eurydamas: [150] they never came back for him to read [krinein] them any more dreams [oneiroi], for mighty Diomedes made an end of them.

Iliad 5.148–151, adapted from Sourcebook

The appearance of dreams

We saw above that Zeus despatched a personified Dream to Agamemnon. This is Agamemnon’s account of that dream, when he tells the assembly about it:

“My friends [philoi],” said he, “In my sleep [enupnion] I have had a divine dream [oneiros] in the dead of night, and the its face and figure resembled none but Nestor’s. It stood over my head and said, [60] ‘You are sleeping, son of high-spirited Atreus, breaker of horses; one who has the welfare of his assembly of warriors and so much other care upon his shoulders should dock his sleep. Hear me at once, for I am a messenger from Zeus, who, though he be not near, yet takes thought for you and pities you.”

Iliad 2.56–64, adapted from Sourcebook

A dream can take on the appearance of someone, Nestor in this case.

Other gods can convey messages through dreams or visions, and again these take on the appearance of someone known to the person. And, as with Agamemnon’s Baneful Dream, the vision typically stands above the sleeper’s head.

Penelope's Dream

[795] Then owl-vision goddess Athena turned her thoughts to another matter, and made a vision [eidōlon] in the likeness of Penelope’s sister…. She told the vision to go to the house of godlike Odysseus, [800] and to make Penelope leave off crying, so it came into her room by the hole through which the thong went for pulling the door to, stood over her head and spoke a mūthos to her,

You are asleep [eudein], Penelope: [805] the gods who live at ease will not suffer you to weep and be so sad. Your son has done them no wrong, so he will yet come back to you.”

Circumspect Penelope, who was sleeping sweetly at the gates [pulai] of dreamland [oneireios], answered, [810] “Sister, why have you come here? … Am I, then, to leave off crying and refrain from all the sad thoughts that torture me? I, who have lost my brave and lion-hearted husband, [815] who had every good quality [aretē] under the sky, and whose kleos was great over all Hellas and middle Argos; and now my darling son has gone off on board of a ship—a foolish [nēpios] man who has never been used to undergoing ordeals [ponoi], nor to going about among gatherings of men….

“Then the dim vision [eidōlon] said, [825] “Take heart, and be not so much dismayed. There is one gone with him whom many a man would be glad enough to have stand by his side, I mean Athena; it is she who has compassion upon you, and who has sent me to bear you this message.”

…. Then it vanished through the thong-hole of the door and was dissipated into thin air; [840] but Penelope rose from her sleep [hupnos] refreshed and comforted, so vivid had been her dream [oneiros].”

Odyssey 4.795–818, 824–829, 838–841, adapted from Sourcebook

Gods coming as dreams

Again, it is Athena who is responsible for Nausicaa’s dream, but this time she comes in person:

[15] She [= Athena] came into the private chamber, with its many adornments, where the girl [= Nausicaa] 16 was sleeping…. [20] Athena took the form [eidos] of the famous sea captain Dymas’ daughter, who was a bosom friend of Nausicaa and just her own age; then, coming up to the girl’s bedside like a breath of wind, she stood over her head and spoke a mūthos to her: [25] “Nausicaa, what can your mother have been about, to have such a lazy daughter? Here are your clothes all lying in disorder, yet you are going to be married almost immediately… Suppose, then, that we make tomorrow a washing day, and start at daybreak. … Ask your father, therefore, to have a wagon and mules ready for us at daybreak, to take the rugs, robes, and belts; and you can ride, too, which will be much pleasanter for you [40] than walking, for the washing-cisterns are some way from the town…”

Odyssey 6.15–27, 31, 36–40, adapted from Sourcebook

Hermes also appears in a similar way to Priam; although none of the words for dream appear in the text, again the wording is the same: “he stood over  his head and spoke a mūthos to him” [στῆ δ’ ἄρ’ ὑπὲρ κεφαλῆς καί μιν πρὸς μῦθον ἔειπεν]

And now both gods and mortals were fast asleep through the livelong night, but upon Hermes alone, the bringer of good luck, [680] sleep [hupnos] could take no hold for he was thinking all the time how to get King Priam away from the ships without his being seen by the strong force of sentinels. He therefore stood over his [= Priam’s] head and spoke a mūthos to him, “Sir, now that Achilles has spared your life, you seem to have no fear about sleeping in the thick of your foes. [685] You have paid a great ransom, and have received the body of your philos son; were you still alive and a prisoner the sons whom you have left at home would have to give three times as much to free you; and so it would be if Agamemnon and the other Achaeans were to know of your being here.”

Iliad 24.677–688, adapted from Sourcebook

The narrative does not tell us about Hermes’ appearance, so perhaps he is still in the form of a young Myrmidon, as he was when he joined Priam along the way (Iliad 24.346–347, 396–397).

The psūkhē of Patroklos

Achilles and Patroklos

When the psūkhē of Patroklos appears to Achilles while he is asleep, is Patroklos real, or a dream? What do you think?

62 Here sleep [hupnos] took hold of him [= Achilles], releasing him from the cares in his heart. 63 It was a sweet sleep that poured all over him, since his shining limbs had been worn down 64 with chasing Hector round windy Ilion. [65] Then came to him the spirit [psūkhē] of unhappy Patroklos, 66 resembling in every way the man himself in size and good looks 67 and voice. It [= the psūkhē] even wore the same clothes he used to wear over his skin. 68 It [= the psūkhē] stood over his head and spoke a mūthos to him:

69 “You sleep [heudein], Achilles. As for me, you have forgotten all about me; [70] you used to be not at all uncaring about me when I was alive, but now that I am dead you care for me no further. 71 Bury me with all speed that I may pass through the gates [pulai] of Hādēs. 72 Keeping me away from there are the spirits [psūkhai], who are images [eidōla] of men who have ended their struggles; 73 they [= the spirits] are not yet permitting me to join them beyond the river. 74 So that is how it is, and that is how I am, directionless, at the entrance to the wide gates [euru-pulēs] of the house of Hādēs. [75] Give me now your hand while I weep, and I do weep because never again 76 will I return from the house of Hādēs once you all do what you have to do, which is, to let me have the ritual of fire.  …

82 I will tell you one more thing, and I call on you to comply. 83 Do not let my bones be laid to rest apart from your bones, Achilles, 84 but together with them… 91 So now let the same container enclose our bones for both of us. 92 I mean, the two-handled golden vase given to you by that lady, your mother.”

And swift-footed Achilles answered, “Why, true heart, [95] are you come here to lay these charges upon me? I will of my own self do all as you have bidden me. Draw closer to me, let us once more throw our arms around one another, and find sad comfort in the sharing of our sorrows.”

He opened his arms towards him as he spoke [100] and would have clasped him in them, but there was nothing, and the spirit [psūkhē] vanished as a vapor, gibbering and whining into the earth. Achilles sprang to his feet, smote his two hands, and made lamentation saying, “Of a truth even in the house of Hādēs there are spirits [psūkhai] and phantoms [eidōlon] that have no life [phrenes] in them; [105] all night long the sad spirit [psūkhē] of Patroklos has stood above me making a piteous moan, telling me what I am to do for him, and looking wondrously like himself.”

Iliad 23 62–76, 82–84, 91–107, adapted from Sourcebook

Dream images and messages

In most dreams, the sleeper sees the messenger in the guise of someone they know, and who would typically be talking about these sorts of matters. We also see that the dreamer can have a dialogue with the dream-persona.

How does Penelope’s dream about the geese fit into this pattern? Is she recounting an actual dream, or is it a lie of her own? There is one example of a simile which also seems to depict a different type of dream than the “messenger/dialogue”:

As a man in a dream [oneiros] who fails to lay hands upon another whom he is pursuing [200] —the one cannot escape nor the other overtake—even so neither could Achilles come up with Hector, nor Hector break away from Achilles.

Iliad 22.199-201, adapted from Sourcebook

When Athena sends the vision or appears herself in a dream, and similarly when Hermes appears to Priam, they do not come directly from Zeus in the way the Baneful Dream did. But could we say that they are both fulfilling missions agreed by or instigated by Zeus?

When the sleepers awake, they are aware that it was a message from the gods, even though they seemed to be talking with someone they knew in person.

In one of his lying stories, Odysseus (in disguise) recounts how ‘he’ heard Odysseus recount a dream:

[495] ‘My friends [philoi],’ said he, ‘a dream [oneiros] came to me from the gods in my sleep [enupnion]. We are a long way from the ships; I wish someone would go down and tell Agamemnon to send us up more men at once.

Odyssey 14.495–498, adapted from Sourcebook

From the evidence in all these passages, can all dreams be considered as coming from Zeus, directly or indirectly? And is there a difference between dreams that the dreamer understands and acts on appropriately, and those that need interpretation by someone else?

Selected vocabulary

Definitions and citations quoted from Autenrieth[4] and LSJ[5].

enupnion [ἐν – ύπνιον] : in sleep, only neut. as adv., Il. 2.56 (Autenrieth)

eidōlon [εἴδωλον] : shape, phantom, Il. 5.449, Od. 4.796, Od. 11.476 (Autenrieth)

heudein [εὕδειν] : to sleep, lie down to sleep, Od. 2.397 (Autenrieth)

hupar [ὕπαρ] : reality, real appearance as opposed to a dream, Od. 19.547 and Od. 20.90 (Autenrieth)

hupnos [ὕπνος] : sleep (Autenrieth)

onar [ὄναρ] : dream, vision; as opposed to ὕπαρ, ‘reality,’ Od. 19.547, Od. 20.90 (Autenrieth)

oneireios [ὀνείρειος] (adj.) :  of dreams, Od. 4.809 (LSJ)

oneiros [ὄνειρος, ὄνειρον] dream, personified, Il. 2.6, Il. 16.22; as a people dwelling hard by the way to the nether world, Od. 24.12; a dream allegory, Od. 19.562, cf. Od. 4.809 (Autenrieth)

oneiropolos [ὀνειρόπολος] : interpreter of dreams, Il. 1.63, 5.149 (LSJ)

oulos [οὖλος] (adj.) : destructive, murderous, Il. 5.461; baneful, Il. 2.6, 8. (Autenrieth)

pseudoneiros [ψευδόνειρος] : dreaming a false dream (LSJ)

pulē, pl. pulai [πύλη] :  gate, gates, always pl., with reference to the two wings. Od. 4.809, Od. 19.562, Od. 14.156 (Autenrieth)


[1] Sourcebook: The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours Sourcebook of Original Greek Texts Translated into English, Gregory Nagy, General Editor. 2019.08.13. Available online at the Center for Hellenic Studies:

[2] Seymour, Thomas D. 1891. Homer’s Iliad, Books I-III. Boston. Ginn and Company.
Online on Perseus

[3] The Center for Hellenic Studies. 2020. A Homeric Commentary in Progress, online:

[4] Georg Autenrieth. 1891. A Homeric Dictionary for Schools and Colleges. New York. Harper and Brothers.
Online on Perseus

[5] LSJ: Henry George Liddell. Robert Scott. 1940. A Greek-English Lexicon. revised and augmented throughout by. Sir Henry Stuart Jones. with the assistance of. Roderick McKenzie. Oxford. Clarendon Press.
Online at Perseus

Image credits

After John Flaxman. 1805. Jupiter sending the Evil Dream to Agamemnon
Royal Academy, Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 3.0

Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein. 1802. Odysseus and Penelope
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

After John Flaxman. 1805. Penelope’s Dream
Tate, Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported)

Henry Fuseli. 1803. Achilles Searching for the Shade of Patrocles
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Note: Images have been selected from pictures that are freely available with open source or Creative Commons licenses or from photographs sent in by community members for the purpose. The images in this post are intended to suggest the subject, rather than illustrate exactly—as such, they may be from other periods, subjects, or cultures. Attributions are based where possible by those shown by museums, or on Wikimedia Commons, at the time of publication on this website.

Texts and images accessed February 2020.


Hélène Emeriaud, Janet M. Ozsolak, and Sarah Scott are members of Kosmos Society.